Late Capitalism Is Purgatory: A 9-Hour Quest for Meaning at the Mall of America

Shazam-ing a She & Him song outside of a Cinnabon is how we live now.

Gordon Gaippe/Flickr

The hotel shuttle only went two places: The Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport and The Mall of America. I didn’t need or particularly want to go to either, but I didn’t have a car and I did have a full day to kill before taking off to Wabasha, MN, tomorrow. I didn’t want to hole up in the hotel because I didn’t want to think of myself as that person, alternating room service and episodes of House Hunters. I got dressed and swam through the cold air to the heated van. A Billy Idol song was being pumped its plastic-covered speakers.

“Are you ready to go to the mall?” asked the driver. I said I was.

At around 5 million-square-feet, the Mall of America could house seven Yankee Stadiums within its walls. Because it’s always 70 degrees inside and there are 8 acres of skylights, those stadiums could potentially be filled with a vast haul of heirloom tomato plants. But the Mall of America isn’t just big for bigness’s sake. It’s big for the sake of commerce. It, like any mall, is a temple to impulse purchases, a monument to commercialism, and a testament to financial one-upmanship. To stand in one of its atria is to feel the straining heartbeat and arrhythmias of late-stage American capitalism.

To stand in one of its atria knowing that nine hours must be killed, is to truly reckon with what Alexis de Tocqueville said about freedom: “Nothing is harder to learn how to use.”

Part The First: Preparations

One tries to cope.

It becomes clear to me that in order to do this I will need caffeine and that my immediate consist of two Starbucks locations: one inside the Barnes & Noble at the center of the mall, another stand-alone location just across the atrium. I walk that way, down thoroughfares trying and failing to look like charming European alleys. Following signs for the “Nickelodeon Universe,” the pleasure dome within the pleasure dome, I make my way toward the book emporium and purchase a coffee.

The coffee is warm in my hands. I can feel it in precisely the way I can’t feel the motionless 70-degree air. I sip and look around, feeling momentarily sheltered from the crush of suggestions of where and how I should spend my money behind some heavily branded cardboard. There is a lot of tiling.

Part Two: A Back-Alley Deal

Having consumed sugar in both liquid and solid forms, I enter the amusement park, which sits in an atrium under a roof that’s all skylights, several stories above the ground floor. It’s quiet, which isn’t surprising — it’s a Thursday in March in an indoor amusement park intended for children. I approach a kiosk, only now realizing that I’ve forgotten my glasses.

I’ve been told I look angry when I squint so I try not to. Instead, I get very close to the small-print numbers and frown in a way that I hope looks more thoughtful than skeptical or angry. It must work, because a boy, maybe 13, approaches me.

“Excuse me, ma’am?” he says and I try very hard not to squint at him for that. “Have you bought a wristband?” I shake my head because not only have I not bought a wristband, but I do not know what would happen if I had.

A woman appears behind him, out of breath.

“We bought 15,” she says. “They’re cheaper if you buy them that way.”

“Oh,” I nod slowly. “What do they…do?”

“Unlimited rides,” she says.

“They’re usually $35 but we’re selling them for $25,” the boy adds.

“Oh,” I say. I dig cash out of my pocket, not entirely sure if I’m doing it because I actually want access to unlimited rides or if I feel too embarrassed to say that I don’t want a black market wristband.“It’s legit,” the woman says unnecessarily. “See? We bought them today.” She points to a date, which I cannot read. I nod again and give her the money.

The woman at the nearby Orange Julius cart helps me fasten the band on my wrist. She doesn’t say anything about what just went down.

Part The Third: A Fairly Odd Coaster Indeed

I decide to purchase a locker for the day. It’s $5, but means that I won’t have to carry my bag, which contains two books, a water bottle and an empty plastic bag that once held chocolate-covered espresso beans. Unburdened, I enter the first queue I see. It’s for something called the “Fairly Odd Coaster,” named for the show Fairly Odd Parents, which is still on Nickelodeon after ten seasons.

This coaster has a height requirement, however paltry, and I assume that I will not be laughed out of line for going on a ride for toddlers by myself. I’m behind a couple that appears to be a few years older than me. They do not look like people who have come to the Mall of America because their only other choice was the airport.

I climb into the roller coaster car after them. I don’t yet know that it’s perfectly acceptable and even customary to wait for the next coaster car if you’re not with the party in front of you, and it’s only after I’m buckled and strapped in that the woman asks the next kids in line if they each want their own car.

I ride the coaster with the couple, but purposely convey no outward emotion, even — especially — joy.

It begins to sink in just how much being alone informs how we behave in public, particularly when no one else is alone. Being alone in a coffee shop, for example, is within the normal bounds of lone behavior. But an amusement park — a place built on the premise of laughter and joy and shared experience — is perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the essential element of company. When I smile or laugh or scream on a ride here, by myself, I’m not doing it for the sake of communicating anything to anyone or sharing anything with anybody. It’s all for me and all frighteningly genuine and I try not to hate the idea as I enter the queue for a ride called “Shredder’s Mutant Masher.”

Part The Fourth: The Persistence of Memory

Following a ride called “Brain Surge” on which my phone nearly dislodges itself from the laughably shallow pockets of my jeans, I decide to put everything, including my phone and wallet, in the locker.

When I do this, time ceases to pass at a predictable rate. Like a casino, The Mall has no visible clocks and I have no watch. Above, the sky is gray, interrupted by unenthusiastic bouts of light snow. I board a Spongebob rollercoaster with three eight-year-old girls. One of them reveals that she is scared, but the other two assure her that it’s not scary. I’m not scared, but when the roller coaster reaches the top and then descends a near-vertical drop, I scream loudly and involuntarily.

The girls laugh.

It is as Ralph Ellison said: “The antidote to hubris is irony.”

Part The Fifth: Lunch

It’s another dozen rides at least before I start to feel hungry and just the slightest bit nauseous. Never one for getting ill on rides, I wonder if it has something to do with the mall air and the strong stench of industrial cleaner or if I’m just losing the fight against aging in sudden and dramatic fashion.

I reclaim my wallet, phone and bag from the locker and make my way to the wing of The Mall where most of the food that isn’t Cinnabon is located and find a bevy of novelty restaurants.

Among them is The Rainforest Cafe and I toy with the idea of taking myself on a lunch date where I’ll be surrounded by noisy animatronic animals. It strikes me as a funny joke between myself and myself, one that might be amusing for approximately the length of time it’ll take me to eat. I look at the menu posted near the entrance, trying to work out whether or not the joke is worth $30 when a spontaneous thunderstorm erupts, which causes me to jump and hit my head very hard against the plexiglass frame of the menu board.

I decide that the joke is not, in fact, worth it.

Fifteen minutes later, I end up at a place called Burger Burger simply because it serves beer and doesn’t smell like watered down bleach like some of the others.

After ordering a burger befitting a mall as ostentatious as this one (topped with deep-fried mac and cheese) and the largest beer available, I take a seat and read a book, remembering briefly what it’s like to be somewhere that isn’t The Mall, doing something that isn’t wondering what I should do next.

This is not the Mall of America, but a different place

I don’t look up again until both beer and burger are finished and I feel tired of sitting in the plastic chair, but when I do, I notice that nearly everyone else is also drinking a beer now.

When I sat down, everyone in the establishment had been drinking soda or water. I wonder if my brazen willingness to drink an improbably large beer at 2 pm had somehow given them the permission they were seeking to follow their own alcohol-driven truths, or if I’d simply been there long enough that we’d reached the unspoken but somehow agreed upon time that’s deemed acceptable for drinking in The Mall.

Part The Sixth: Logjammin’

This is also not the Mall of America, but three skeletons playing music

After wandering half-heartedly through several stores, and Shazam-ing a She & Him song outside of a Cinnabon because I have apparently forgotten what music sounds like, I return to the amusement park and put my things back in my locker.

I decide to try the only water ride in the park and, coincidentally, one of the only rides whose theme is not a cartoon character or a soft drink. It’s called Log Chute and is easily and immediately my favorite.

Log Chute is designed like a lumber mill in which you are a log. It features large stacks of pancakes and big jars of syrup, along with stiff and aging robotic analogs of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. I find myself wishing I’d ridden it sooner, as it is far and away the best ride in the park. I try to remember if this is the first and only thing I’ve wished for all day. Log Chute has no lines and the ride operators are kind, pretending that it’s not weird that I’m wandering around a mostly empty indoor amusement park by myself on a Thursday afternoon.

It was Will Rogers who said, “Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need.” A kingdom founded on purchases, The Mall is in a constant state of advertising: Itself, its stores, its size, its food.

In that way, something about Log Chute doesn’t quite seem to fit. It has nothing to sell or to promote and shows no signs of being updated recently. It’s the lone holdout in this relentlessly updated and rebranded park, a small corner of this most massive mall that isn’t advertising anything at all, though it does make me hungry for pancakes and boysenberry syrup.

After the first ride, the ride operator asks if I’d like to just stay in this car and go again because no one’s in line. I tell her I would.

I ride Log Chute eight times.

Part The Seventh: The Persistence of Memory, Revisited

Without my phone or a watch I am, once again, unaware of the ceaseless progression of time.

Several hours pass. I ride the Spongebob roller coaster again and, in a cruel twist of fate, end up in the same car with the same eight year old girls with whom I rode the roller coaster several hours ago. I hope they don’t remember me or the fact that I screamed very loudly, but judging by the way they get very quiet when I approach, it’s abundantly clear that they do. On the ride, I swallow my scream and wonder if I have overestimated my bravery my entire life or if these girls have the hearts of hardened viking warriors.

Though I’ve almost definitely gotten my money’s worth out of the unlimited rides wristband, the thought of returning to the mall part of The Mall fills my heart with a cold, heavy sense of dread. Instead, I return to Log Chute.

The ride operators recognize me because apparently there’s only one girl frequenting the park alone on this particular day. One of them asks me if I’m sick of the rides yet. I tell him that I’m not, that I’m just waiting for my friends, who are shopping. For nearly eight hours now.

I wonder, briefly, if it would’ve been easier or more believable to tell him that I’m a ghost and that he’s the only one who can see me.

Part The Eighth: Spirited Away

I disembark Log Chute and have thoroughly lost count of the number of times I’ve been on it. I can, however, recite all of Robot Paul Bunyan’s lines.

I ask a man standing near the ride’s exit what time it is. He looks at me strangely then flashes a pleased sort of smile that says he’s thinking about how long, exactly, it’s been since someone asked him for the time and wouldn’t it be nice if people just spoke to one another more, even if it’s just to ask the time?

I wonder if I’ve made a poor choice in who to approach for the time and if things are about to get weird unbidden when he tells me that it’s 5:12.


Even I am caught off-guard by how jovial I am in receiving this news. It’s nearly time to go.

My time here hasn’t been horrible, but I find myself very excited to meet a friend for drinks later and to be in a place that is not The Mall — someplace that has, presumably, been touched by outside air sometime in the last decade.

Briefly, I question whether or not I have time for one more run on Log Chute. I decide that I do.

Part The Ninth: The Hero’s Return

I return to my hotel room and am immediately overcome with the desire to shower. All at once I feel sticky and like I’m covered in an unshakeable film of the oft-regurgitated air that maybe never quite makes it out of the building, despite what I’m sure are very sophisticated and expensive air filtration systems.

The Mall, I’ve decided, is a place that I enjoyed enough but not a place I like. If given the opportunity to go back, I am confident that I would not take it. Not immediately, anyway. Not until Robot Paul Bunyan’s lines and his deep, bellowing laugh have faded from my memory.

“But what about me?” you ask? Should you go to the Mall of America?

Maybe. If you’re in the neighborhood or have seen everything in the IKEA nearby. But not alone, and definitely not for nine hours.

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